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August 27, 2004

Rocking the Boat — Women’s Equality Day

“There would be nothing like this happen if you would stay at home.” *

Eighty-four years ago, on August 26, 2004, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. Today both the Republicans and the Democrats are eagerly chasing after women’s votes. But it wasn’t always so, as this anonymous plea, which has been making the rounds of the internet, makes clear:

A short history lesson on the privilege of voting

The women were innocent and defenseless. And by the end of the night, they were barely alive. Forty prison guards wielding clubs and with their warden's blessing went on a rampage against the 33 women wrongly convicted of "obstructing sidewalk traffic."

They beat Lucy Burn, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack. Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting, and kicking the women.

Thus unfolded the "Night of Terror" on November 15, 1917 (a mere 87 years ago), when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson's White House for the right to vote.

For weeks, the women's only water came from an open pail. Their food — all of it colorless slop — was infested with worms. When one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat, and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured like this for weeks until word was smuggled out to the press.

So, refresh my memory. Some women won't vote this year because — why, exactly? We have carpool duties? We have to get to work? Our vote doesn't matter? It's raining?

Last week, I went to a sparsely attended screening of HBO's new movie "Iron Jawed Angels." It is a graphic depiction of the battle these women waged so that I could pull the curtain at the polling booth and have my say. I am ashamed to say I needed the reminder.

All these years later, voter registration is still my passion. But the actual act of voting had become less personal for me, more rote.

Frankly, voting often felt more like an obligation than a privilege. Sometimes it was inconvenient.

My friend Wendy, who is my age and studied women's history, saw the HBO movie, too. When she stopped by my desk to talk about it, she looked angry. She was — with herself.

"One thought kept coming back to me as I watched that movie," she said. "What would those women think of the way I use — or don't use — my right to vote? All of us take it for granted now, not just younger women, but those of us who did seek to learn. "The right to vote" she said, had become valuable to her all over again.

HBO will run the movie periodically before releasing it on video and DVD.

I wish all history, social studies, and government teachers would include the movie in their curriculum. We are not voting in the numbers that we should be, and I think a little shock therapy is in order.

It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. And it is inspiring to watch the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn't make her crazy. The doctor admonished the men: "Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity."

Please pass this on to all the women you know. We need to get out and vote and use this right that was fought so hard for by these very courageous women.

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The first battle was won in the West, many years earlier, when the Territorial Legislature of Wyoming resolved in 1869 "That every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this Territory, may at every election to be holden under the law thereof, cast her vote." With statehood in 1890, Wyoming brought women suffrage into the United States, after officials in Cheyenne made it clear that they would refuse to join the Union without it.

One by one, other Western States followed: Colorado in 1893, Utah and Idaho in 1896, Washington in 1910. In 1911 the State of California voted on the question. Here, as Mae Silver writes for Shaping San Francisco, the opposition used not physical but economic weapons. And that opposition centered on San Francisco and Alameda counties.

Women claim the vote in California

By Mae Silver

American women gained their right to vote in 1920. But in California, women had already won the right to vote in 1911, nearly a decade earlier.

The 1896 and 1911 suffrage campaigns demonstrated the mature political savvy women had acquired. Both campaigns drew help from suffragists all over America, but the assistance to the 1911 effort was formidable. Women remembered who defeated them in 1896.

Out of all the California counties, two killed the suffrage attempt in 1896 — San Francisco and Alameda. The Liquor Dealers League, really the producers, proprietors, and patrons of drink, defeated suffrage. Between 1896 and 1906, the movement languished in California as across America. But, after the earthquake in 1906, a suffrage convention of considerable size convened in San Francisco. The fight was on. The strategy would aim hard at the state's small towns and Southern California. Aided by the automobile and telephone, north and south suffragists merged to form an impressive campaign machine. The work was intense and highly individual. Church to church, school to school, club to club, door to door, person to person; all received handbills and newspaper articles about the suffrage movement. Little towns where nobody ever saw a suffragist learned about women's rights and the importance of the right to vote. The College Equal Suffrage League staged unique publicity events, often using their "Blue Liner," a special touring car.

The night before the election, the famed Madame Nordica, in town for ground-breaking for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, unexpectedly appeared in Union Square. She entreated all to give women liberty — the vote. Nordica closed by singing "The Star Spangled Banner" to the cheers of the assembled crowd.

The next day, October 10, 1911, suffragist precinct workers geared for fraud and mayhem at the ballot boxes in San Francisco and Alameda counties. An impressive corps of ballot box watchers, 1,066 men and women, scrutinized every voting poll in San Francisco. Watchers tallied at least 3,000 fraudulent ballots. The day after the election, city newspapers declared the California women's franchise vote dead. As anticipated, San Francisco County voted 35,471 No, 21,912 Yes. Alameda voted 7,818 No, 6,075 Yes. But suffrage workers smiled when the other votes started to roll in. Slowly they came, as they had been sought. The small towns and valleys delivered the victorious votes that returned a majority of 3,587. In 1911, California women joined the franchised women of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Washington. In 1912, Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona women won their vote. West Coast women claimed their franchise. The potential power of that vote did not go unnoticed.

In those nine Western states resided six and one-half million women voters. That translated into 45 electoral votes. In 1916, Alice Paul, chair of the Washington, D.C. Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, created the National Women's Party (NWP), a political party with only one agenda — the passage of the Susan B. Anthony 19th Amendment. NWP boasted 50,000 members and raised three-quarters of a million dollars. Masterly and persistently, Paul executed her resolve, sending NWP members to be the first women in history to picket the White House. Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National Association, engineered an incredibly complex and effective machine throughout the United States. Paul used "the young are at the gates" confrontational methods while Catt brokered adroitly in rooms dominated by either tea or cigars. Because of both drives, President Woodrow Wilson finally surrendered his support on behalf of the women's suffrage cause.

After Congress passed the proposal on June 4, 1919, each state had to ratify the amendment. Some state legislatures offered continued resistance. This was not the case in California. On November 1, 1919, Governor William D. Stephens called a special session of the legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Before the vote more than 100 members of the state suffrage association hosted a luncheon honoring the entire legislature, the governor, and other executives. California ratified the Susan B. Anthony Amendment with little contention.

The hour of the woman had arrived.


* Suffrage Parade, Senate Hearing, March 6-17, 1913, p. 70 (JK1888 1913b GenColl; MicRR; RBSC NAWSA; LAW).

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